Rossella Biscotti, The Trial

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial

Rossella Biscotti, “The Trial” 2011. Keys taken from the high-security courthouse in Foro Italico, Rome.

Rossella Biscotti, The Trial
May 10, 2013

On April 7, 1979, a number of militants and intellectuals, formerly members of Potere Operaio (Workers Power) and Autonomia Operaia, were arrested across Italy on charges of terrorism. They were accused of being leaders of the armed organization the Red Brigades, and for the kidnap and execution of Aldo Moro. As head of the governing Christian Democratic Party, Moro was on the eve of successfully engineering a “historic compromise” between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party. Evidence to support the prosecution was, and remains unfounded, yet the majority of the prosecuted were held in preventative prison from 1979 until the trial’s close in 1984. It is this 1982–84 trial that artist Rossella Biscotti takes as her point of departure for the performance and exhibition The Trial at e-flux.

The core of The Trial is a six-hour audio edit of the original courtroom recordings. Initiating the show on May 11 and 12 is a two-day simultaneous live translation of this sound piece from Italian to English. The act of translation is central to the exhibition, as both a transferral and an embodiment of the historical trial’s language within the present time. Projected on the wall is a black and white silent film that traces a performance held in the high-security courthouse, designed by rationalist architect Luigi Moretti in 1934, in which the trials took place. Remnants taken from the courtroom, wooden benches and keys, are present in the exhibition, activating the history of the courthouse building. A series of red silkscreen prints are hung on the wall, and documentation of previous translation performances are on view. Over the course of the exhibition, Biscotti, Yates McKee, (co-editor of the magazine Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy), and special guests will co-facilitate a reading group devoted to the historical legacies of Autonomist Marxism relative to recent struggles including but not limited to those affiliated with Occupy.

The Trial must be situated within the period of social and political unrest experienced by Italy beginning with its rise in economic productivity following World War II. Before its dissolution in 1973, the Potere Operaio movement was influential in pushing for an alliance between the libertarian student protests of 1968 and the autonomous workers movement of 1969. This formed the backdrop against which Autonomia Operaia would emerge in the mid-1970s as a rhizomatic network of intellectuals throughout Italy. The thinkers of the Italian autonomia movement were the first to recognize a massive integration of labor, exploitation, and creativity that artists around the world continue to grapple with today. In unfurling a decisive moment in its history, Rossella Biscotti reminds us that our work still happens within a political project, even if its name is not apparent.

Rossella Biscotti was born in 1978 in Molfetta, Italy. She has had solo exhibitions at the CAC Vilnius (2012), Fondazione Galleria Civica di Trento (2010), and the Nomas Foundation, Rome (2009), and participated in group exhibitions at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel (2012), Manifesta 9, Genk (2012), MAXXI National Museum for 21st Century Art, Rome (2010–11), Witte de With, Rotterdam (2010), and Museu Serralves, Porto (2010). Biscotti received the Premio Italia Arte Contemporanea Award in 2010. Biscotti will participate in the forthcoming Venice Biennial 2013 and has a solo exhibition at the Wiener Secession opening in July 2013.

Rossella Biscotti and e-flux would like to thank: Arianna Bove, Kevin van Braak, Danilo Correale, Kelman Duran, Chicco Funaro, Michel Hardt, Lily Lewis, Louis Luthi, Rossana Miele, Max Mosca, Timothy Murphy, Nick Mirzoeff, Toni Negri, Alessandra Renzi, Wilfried Lentz, Toon de Zoeten, all the defendants of the April 7  trial, and Radio Radicale for the original recordings.

For further information please contact laura [​at​]


“Rossella Biscotti: The Trial”, Performa Magazine • Performa Staff

Performa: The first iteration of The Trial , in Rome, was split between the MAXXI Musuem and the Aula Bunker, the courthouse where the April 7 trial actually took place. In New York, the performance is in one location. How do you think this changes the process and meaning or reception of the work? Rossella Biscotti: I think the New York…

Performa: The first iteration of The Trial, in Rome, was split between the MAXXI Musuem and the Aula Bunker, the courthouse where the April 7 trial actually took place. In New York, the performance is in one location. How do you think this changes the process and meaning or reception of the work?

Rossella Biscotti: I think the New York show puts together what is for me the core of the project. In a way it’s focused on the text, the language, and the translation. It involves people in translating the text coming from the trial into another language but also into the present time. At the same time, the space is conceived in such a way that the spectator becomes part of the trial. The position of the spectator in the performance is important for me. In this case I think the spectator is on the same level as the performance. They become a part of the project.

Much of your work implicates the spectator as the public. Can you talk about this within the framework of the The Trial?

Yes, I always perceive the public as the main point. Often it’s something practical. InThe Trial, I took benches directly from the courthouse where the trial took place. I placed them in the exhibition space, and these benches became seating for the audience. I normally try to leave the center of the exhibition empty. It’s important for me that the center of the exhibition belongs to the spectator. The performance takes place off to the side, and you are able as spectator to move all around the space. In a way, it creates a set, but it doesn’t create a scenography. The set includes the spectator.

Also important for the public is the relationship between the Aula Bunker, a high-security courthouse in Rome where The Trial took place, and the space. The courthouse is an important architectonic element. It was a modernist building constructed in 1938, which was then reused for trials in the 1970s. When I started the project in 2006, the building had to be renovated. Now, it is in the process of changing and becoming a museum of sport. When this building was a courthouse, it had a straightforward use. As a space, it enforced certain rules to anyone who entered. I think it’s important that you have points of view in the exhibition which give you this same feeling; the benches are bolted to the floor, so when you sit as a spectator, you feel that you are part of this bureaucratic machine.

Some of your prior work was filmic, and the script played an important role in your exhibitions. How do concepts like mise-en-scene play a role in the performance aspect of your work?

When I work with any media, I work with it as if it were film. The most important film concept here is editing: It starts with information, then structure, and all of the works have a narrative. The idea of narration comes from the script. But The Trial is freer than film because as the spectator you can choose your entry point into the exhibition.

What led you to this subject matter? You first visited the courthouse because you were interested in its architecture.

This is true. My first interest was in the architecture of this specific building. When I first entered, I noticed that the architecture was mostly unchanged. It was like a film set. But I first knew the space through media—the images coming from the trials. The most famous trial was for the kidnapping and killing of a Democratic party leader, the trial of the Red Brigades, and then this trial, which I ultimately decided to work with—the April 7, 1982 trial of Autonomia Operaia.

I wanted to learn more about the trial, but for me knowledge is usually a function of relationships with people, so in a way, it contrasted my first feeling of knowing through media. I knew the history, but I knew it through media. In the beginning, I ran parallel research both on the Red Brigades and on the 7 April trial. I found the 7 April trial interesting because it is much more contemporary. These lawyers experimented with legislation which later became standard practice, especially with regard to terrorism. For example, they first used preventative imprisonment for those who had charges. When a charge was invalidated, they could keep them imprisoned until new charges were brought, and informants could get immediate reprieve and had no obligation to swear in during the trial.

The trial begins with accusations against many defendants who were university professors. They were mainly people who during the sixties and seventies were teaching and writing books. They were observers of social movements. The main accusation was that they had shaped the minds of the students who later took up arms and engaged in political action.

The name The Trial recalls Kafka, while being charged for antagonistic speech or corrupting the youth brings to mind Socrates. Were these important touchstones for you?

Yes, of course. These things were even on the mind of the people in the trial, and articles written by Deleuze, Guattari, and Lotringer touched on this context as well.

Can you explain the gap between the performance and the historical material of The Trial?

A difference is produced from the historical material and the work. It is difficult to see. I find that interesting because in a way, a person who is familiar with the history would not know this material. The audio material, for example, which is the base of the performance and the work, is edited down from 200 hundred hours of material into six hours. A big part of this is choosing which people enter the trial, almost like characters. I consider it more like theater than cinema, so there is a completely different structure. The structure I gave through editing is completely fictional in relation to the original trial. In the trial, you have one defendant who goes to speak and is kept with a judge for days. What I did was make it more collective. For me it is mainly an idea of editing information. It comes from the fact that we have so much information that we have to mediate in order to give the material structure.

Is The Trial guided by your systematic approach to constructing narrative, or do you find yourself working more from the material history behind a given project?

It comes primarily from the material. The research process is huge. There are two phases: the research through documents, but also research through testimony. I don’t believe you can do everything through records or traditional research. It is also a way to create a group. I want to create a community around the project. That is my main interest. I want there to be something there when art goes away. Also, because of this project, I remade connections between people who were originally involved.

Tell us about the film in the exhibition.

I call the films “notes” because they are a kind of documentation. At a certain point, coming from film, I felt constrained by having a script, editing, and having a crew, so I transferred this to installation, and I retained the film as a more private way of documenting moments. The films are in 8mm, so I’m not tied to the time of editing. The films have their own time. They aren’t made specifically for exhibition. Another interest is disconnecting the audio from the video—it allows me to choose between film and audio.

In the film, you see different moments from the trial within the courthouse, as well as the architecture of the courthouse. Much of the architectural details have been removed during the building’s transformation. It’s not a pure documentation of a production—it’s documenting this moment in history. I created an encounter between various defendants, friends, families, and lawyers, along with people involved with my project, so the film shows an informal tour of the building.

What is the importance of language and translation within the performance?

Language is really a central point of The Trial. There is a point in the trial when a judge says to Antonio Negri, “We speak two different languages.” This is really important. In the editing process I gave Negri the role of someone who starts primarily with a political defense and tries to give both a historical and political frame of the trial. He tries to explain specific political terms to the judge, explaining phrases that he borrows from Brecht. All of this is in the trial.

There is a second aspect of this that I identify as the core of the project. I began thinking about how to translate the political language and the history to contemporary time. The language is quite specific. It pertains to the things that are more difficult to translate to the present than they are to translate between languages, and this led to the idea of spreading this work internationally. So, the idea of translating, interpreting, and sharing this history through the process of translation became crucial.

Many of the original participants in the trial have become prominent leftist theorists. How do you think your work fits within this new context?

My interest came through strong connections to Autonomia, but also in how they worked with communication, politics, and life as well as the way they tried to connect these things. They were not tied to ideology, so they were constantly changing.

We used the exhibition space at e-flux to hold workshops which explored the possible connection between Occupy and Autonomia, which I don’t think is a given thesis. It is an attempt to discuss some topics and see if there is a line. I think if there is a connection, then it is about life, and whether it is sustainable. It is something discussed in terms of the Greek crisis and Occupy. For Autonomia, culture was a part of living. Fighting for free concerts, free university, for higher wages: this was all a part of the same point. If a factory worker cannot go to a concert, then there is no point in having a higher wage.

The Trial is on view until Saturday, July 20, at e-flux in New York.

—July 17, 2013

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“BENCHES – PURE AND SIMPLE?”, Shifting Connections • Kathleen MacQueen

Five rows of seventeen benches reach across the floor of the Murray Guy Gallery in Chelsea beckoning us to enter, even sit. The presentation is clean and modest. The narrow plank seats are backless. Each is unique but the uniformity of the poplar wood (sourced locally near the artist’s studio) makes the linear arrangement, both strait forward and…

Five rows of seventeen benches reach across the floor of the Murray Guy Gallery in Chelsea beckoning us to enter, even sit. The presentation is clean and modest. The narrow plank seats are backless. Each is unique but the uniformity of the poplar wood (sourced locally near the artist’s studio) makes the linear arrangement, both strait forward and repetitive, reminiscent of minimalist sculpture; while the displacement of the functional purpose of the objects, removed from their original context, implies a conceptual framework. Even so, we are inclined to ask, are these merely benches…pure and simple?

First of all there is a great deal of variety among the forms, including methods of craftsmanship and degree of symbolic decoration. Each bench, in fact, holds a place in the history of American utopian communities; every one an example of a material culture that reflects social experimentation, especially during the formative years of US democracy. The sheer horizontality of form and presentation also invokes today’s various Occupy and other radical movements that make use of inclusive, non-hierarchical means of discourse and consensus building.

For the sculptor Francis Cape (b. 1952, Portugal), benches are where We Sit Together and he often organizes group talks when he exhibits this work. The phrase is an apt title for the publication that resulted from his research, visiting living communal societies as well as heritage sites and museums. On his visits he collected both history and measurements for his meticulous reproductions of benches found originally in workspaces, refectory halls, and houses of communal worship from societies as early as the pre-revolutionary Ephrata Cloisters, a celibate community of Lutheran Pietists, and as recent as the Camphill Village communities for people with developmental disabilities, of which 100 exist today.

“Sharing a bench,” writes Cape, “means sharing the same material support; also sitting at the same level.”[1] But sitting on a bench is not as agreeable as it first seems; it requires physical discipline that to many of the social and religious communities of nineteenth-century America served to emphasize the moral discipline demanded of faith and idealism. Cape imagines sharing, giving communities – collectives whose members have individually renounced personal ownership – but often times strict obedience, instead of willing discipline, was demanded by charismatic authoritarian leaders. Margaret Fuller, a founder of the well-known Brook Farm community, warned that such social experiments were in danger of becoming rigid and dogmatic.[2]

Her trepidation was realistic. In fact, the Oneida Perfectionists, believing on the one hand in the possibility of free love (that is, sex divorced from the notion of sin) were, nonetheless, guided by the authoritarian John Humphrey Noyes, who committed his own son to an insane asylum for refusing to submit to the will of his father.[3] While Cape admits that Noyes instituted a practice of “stirpiculture” – an early system of eugenics – he overlooks the contract young women pledged wherein they relinquished all “rights or personal feelings in regard to child-bearing” as “martyrs to science.”[4] Where was their selfhood and physical autonomy? Can we even begin to consider these practices as equitable?

Margaret Fuller’s idealism was largely individualistic, practicing free love as a path to self-fulfillment and a means to ensure independence. In spite of her criticism, she nevertheless believed communal experiments were an important antidote to social convention. “Utopia it is impossible to build up,” Fuller writes. “Yet every noble scheme, every poetic manifestation, prophesies to man his eventual destiny.”[5] Cape’s installation is evocative of an openness to explore these lessons again. His, too, is a utopian project that prompts conversation in its directness and simplicity. Its optimism is perhaps a necessary quotient to action: possibility over doubt. Even so, the bench seems fit for a Janus-faced interpretation of idealism, especially if one looks across town to another installation at e-flux gallery on the Lower East Side.

There, spaced throughout Rossella Biscotti’s (b. 1978, Italy) installation, The Trial, are five factory-produced benches, their backs and seats wood but their frame wrought iron, the feet bolted to the floor. In contrast to the care Cape instills in his handcrafted works, the focus of the construction for these benches is stability. Their use is not for gathering but for waiting, not for speech but for silence, not to encourage communal sharing but to induce individual submission to authoritarian bureaucracy. Remnants of the Aula Bunker – the high-security courthouse where former members of Potere Operaio (Workers Power) and Autonomia Operaia were on trial for the May 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, Christian Democratic leader and twice Prime Minister of Italy – these benches were part of the courtroom where the defendants heard testimony against them but also, on occasion, took part in the proceedings.

In Biscotti’s installation, the benches are once again in attendance, seating observers during two days of performance at e-flux in May of this year: each a six-hour live simultaneous translation of courtroom recordings also found on site by the artist prior to the courthouse renovation as a sport’s museum. Biscotti edits the 200 hours of original recordings to a six-hour narrative of resistance. At one point, the trial judge admits to Antonio Negri that the two speak different languages, where upon Negri turns the court from dock to dossier, interpreting Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt for the court.[6] As founder of the Potere Operaio and a leading member of the Autonomia Operaia, Negri was charged with complicity in Moro’s assassination. He was among numerous militants and intellectuals held in preventative prison from 1979 until the end of the trial in 1984.

Although Negri escaped to France after sentencing, he eventually served thirteen of a thirty-year term during which he published his best known works – Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth – all fundamental to radical political theory today. During Rossella Biscotti’s exhibition, e-flux hosted a reading group to explore the histories and legacies of the Italian Autonomia movement as they reverberate in contemporary struggles in the US led by Yates McKee, an editor of Tidal, the theoretical journal of the Occupy movement. In a recent issue, political theorist Chantal Mouffe warns of failing to acknowledge the fault lines of a movement whose slogan “we are the 99%” suggests greater consensus than actually exists among activists and the public whose objectives do not necessarily converge.[7] How do we speak of consensus while acknowledging differences? How critical is the relative position of the speaker to the listener in acknowledging and diminishing power differentials?

Sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century that how we sit and what we sit upon reflects cultural practice and value systems.[8] As a feminist and early proponent of the relationship between material culture and social science, Gilman’s perspective, though intuitively rich, was limited by her world-view.[9] It is as if our imagination seeks precision while life does not. Daniel Tammet, a savant with synesthesia, finds rationality in numbers within a life that slips past their equations. For Tammet, Plato’s ideal society based on numerology, is seductive. “According to this figure,” Tammet remarks, “everything would be divided evenly. There would be no war, there would be no discord, [but] … There is always an element of humanity that escapes mathematics, that escapes numbers as well.”[10]

Francis Cape’s benches – so meticulously measured – are pleasing to the eye and his notion of sitting together antidote to the scant intimacy and cooperation in contemporary society. But in the back of one’s mind lurks “time-out” and Sunday school or waiting in the doctor’s office so Rosella Biscotti’s benches confirm a learned resistance to such codes of uniformity. Meanwhile, Tammet renders our utopian desires refreshingly close by admitting to the predictive model he created of his mother’s behavior: “There was always a way in which my mum got around even the most sophisticated calculation, and so I came to realize that there are always going to be aspects of reality that go beyond our calculations.” Just as Negri could subvert the juridical bureaucracy with a lesson on Brecht, perhaps it is less the exactitude of the benches than the differences of those who sit upon them that escapes predictability and lends credence to their appeal.

[1] Francis Cape, We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013), 13.

[2] See Michael Fellman, The Unbounded Frame: Freedom and Community in Nineteenth Century American Utopianism (Greenwood Press, 1973), 77-88. Although it is an early work of noted 19th century historian Michael Fellman (1943-2012) based on his dissertation, The Unbounded Frame is a thoroughly researched and insightful text that holds “that freedom and community tugged in opposite directions at visionaries,” as Christopher Phelps writes in Felman’s obituary.

[3] Fellman, 47.

[4] Fellman, 59-60.

[5] Quoted in Fellman, 79, from an 1840 correspondence.

[6] See interview with the artist by Performa.

[7] See Chantal Mouffe, “Constructing Unity Across Difference: The Fault Lines of the 99%” in Tidal (February 2013), 5.

[8] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903).

[9] Her examples were sometimes naïvely orientalist in The Home.

[10] See NPR interview, August 11, 2013.

—August 15, 2013

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Automonia & Operaismo, Sound Art
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